[IQP] An Environmental Analysis of Pollution in the Informal Settlements Surrounding Rio Burunga

Sponsor: IDAAN / Footprint Possibilities
Student Team: Lauren Morgan-Evans
Samantha Moriarty
Jada Plummer
Abstract: This project assessed the pollution of Rio Burunga in the informal settlements of Arraiján, Panama. Our team conducted water quality tests, held interviews with representatives from the national water utility of Panama (IDAAN), and integrated demographic and infrastructural data, identifying relationships between waste management practices, insufficient wastewater infrastructure and the concentrations of domestic effluent in the river. Our results emphasized the importance of wastewater infrastructure and suggested that wastewater reuse and pollution prevention methods will encourage better waste disposal practices.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

Project Background

Improper wastewater disposal and treatment are increasingly recognized as leading contributors to the Latin American Water Crisis. The impact of the water crisis extends to Panama, where various bodies of water are regularly utilized as locations for the disposal of domestic wastewater, industrial effluent, agricultural waste and garbage. Communities become more vulnerable to the adverse health and environmental effects of wastewater discharge when their population growth exceeds that of the available wastewater infrastructure. Burunga is the fastest growing area in the district of Arraiján, with only 9 percent of its populace connected to a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). For the parts of Burunga that have connections, there have not been any significant infrastructural repairs in almost 8 decades. The remainder of the population depends mostly on latrines and septic tanks. These methods of waste disposal often lead to discharge entering the nearby river, Rio Burunga. IDAAN, Panama’s national water utility, is responsible for supervising the Burunga Project, which aims to prevent further pollution of the region’s waterways with domestic effluent. In order to support the efforts of IDAAN in forwarding the Burunga Project, our team partnered with Footprint Possibilities, a non-profit community improvement organization. We assessed the contamination of Rio Burunga and provided recommendations to help reduce environmental pollution and rehabilitate waste collection and treatment services.

Project Objectives and Methodology

The goals of this project were to assess the state of pollution in Rio Burunga through quantitative and qualitative analyses of the river water quality, to investigate the current challenges of community wastewater disposal, and to present pragmatic recommendations about wastewater reuse and pollution prevention methods. Our project assisted IDAAN in its goal to transition the local communities from informal waste management practices to modernized practices, minimizing the impacts of contamination. Our team established 4 main objectives to accomplish our goals:

  1. Become familiar with Rio Burunga and develop a representative sampling scheme for the investigation of the river’s water quality.
  2. Perform physical, chemical and microbial tests to determine the type and amount of contamination in the river.
  3. Acquire information from IDAAN representatives and partnering Census and Topographical WPI project teams to understand the domestic practices surrounding contamination of Rio Burunga.
  4. Interpret results to make recommendations on wastewater repurposing and pollution prevention.

To reach our first objective, we established sampling coordinates that would provide an accurate representation of the pollution along Rio Burunga. We identified 10 equidistant points using Google MyMaps and detailed maps from the Ministerio de Ambiente (Ministry of Environment). Then, based on location accessibility and recommendations from our IDAAN representatives, the 10 initial points were condensed and 6 final points were chosen for the purpose of conducting water quality tests.

We conducted a series of chemical, microbial, and physical tests to reveal contamination trends in the river. The chemical tests included nitrate, nitrite, and pH. The microbial tests included coliform, conductivity, resistivity, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. The physical tests included total dissolved solids, turbidity, and flow rate. The results of these tests were analyzed against the IDAAN standards for effluent entering receiving bodies of water.

Data received from the two coordinating WPI project teams and the knowledge obtained from interviews with IDAAN representatives supplemented our evaluation of the contamination trends along Rio Burunga. This information allowed us to better understand the specific needs in the Burunga communities and, thus, frame our recommendations accordingly.


We concluded that there were four distinct relationships between pollution in Rio Burunga and the lack of reliable wastewater services in the area.

Coliform is the Leading Parameter in Pollution Indication along Rio Burunga

In comparison with the IDAAN standards for effluent entering receiving bodies, coliform showed the most recognizable results for contamination. It was the only water quality test for which results surpassed the permissible value at every sampling location except for Point 6. Some of the other tests, such as the nitrate and nitrite tests, also showed evidence of contamination at some points in the river. Interviews with IDAAN and our own visual observations of wastewater disposal malpractices additionally supported the notion that coliform is the most critical pollutant entering the river.

Downstream Water Quality is Impacted by Upstream Disposal Habits of the Dense Populations

Through the integration of the census data, visual data from the map, and the results from the water quality tests, we recognized a noticeable correlation between the size and density of the populace and the level of contamination. The increase in population upstream surrounding the river induced an accumulation of pollution downstream. Between points 1 and 3 there was a constant increase in the size of the population accompanied by a steady increase in the amount of coliform colonies, point 3 having the greatest amount. The nitrate and nitrite levels also spiked between points 1 and 3. Following point 3, there was a smaller amount of domestic effluent entering the river due to a significant decrease in population size. Yet, the coliform count at points 4 and 5 remained high. Along with the factors of flow rate and the type of effluent being discharged around points 4 and 5, this indicates that the wastewater disposal practices of the upstream populations have a large enough influence to sustain contamination in the downstream areas of the river despite a substantial population decrease.

Lack of Adequate Wastewater Infrastructure Prompts the Improper Disposal Methods

Data collected from the topographical WPI project team and information received from interviews with IDAAN employees revealed that there is currently no system in place for community sewage collection and treatment. All the residents in the communities examined by our partnering WPI project census team rely on using septic tanks and indoor or outdoor latrines as their main methods of wastewater disposal. These methods amplify the level of pollution of Rio Burunga since many of the people implement their own piping infrastructure to extend from their latrines to culverts which carry domestic influent into Rio Burunga. Additionally, some inhabitants detach themselves from their septic tanks and redirect the flow of their waste into the river. Until proper wastewater collection infrastructure is erected in the community and without an intermediate solution to the current waste disposal methods, the river will continue to be excessively defiled with household excrements.

The Absence of Communal Waste Management Services Promotes Detrimental Garbage Disposal Practices

Our analysis of Rio Burunga revealed that much of its pollution originates not only from domestic influent discharged into the river but also from the community’s garbage. There are no garbage receptacles on the streets, and as such, community members resort to simple and easily accessible measures of waste disposal, where litter is simply tossed on the ground or in the waterway. This was highlighted by the abundance of organic and inorganic trash scattered throughout the community. We realized that residents may be unaware of the consequences of environmental pollution and concluded that resolving the problem of pollution in the region and its waterbodies should be coupled with the reformation of wastewater disposal and treatment management.


Based on our project findings, we decided upon the most advantageous and practical strategies for treated wastewater reuse and pollution prevention throughout the community. These are supplemental solutions to the previously established plans of the Burunga Project and should be used as methods to foster environmental sustainability within the community.

Reuse of Treated Wastewater

As the infrastructure in Burunga develops, a great level of construction will be employed. In this industry, reclaimed water can be used as an acceptable and environmentally safe source for concrete mixing and dust control with specific standards for production. One fire hydrant shared among a community consisting of close to 6,200 inhabitants is a severe safety hazard. The introduction of a hydrant system will require the need for a large volume of non-potable water which can easily be supplied by recycled water. It will also alleviate the safety concerns associated with its diminished presence, such as uncontrolled fires. Within the communities of Burunga are many churches, cemeteries and school yards. Principally one person is assigned the duty of irrigating the land. This was seen in the case of a school yard, where an auxiliary member watered the school’s flowerbeds with a hose. Landscape irrigation would simplify the process of land maintenance and employ the use of spickets and multiple hose systems allowing recycled water to cover a greater surface area in a shorter period of time. A regulated and consistent supply of the water to the land of these properties would hopefully add to their beautification.
Prevention of Pollution

A direct approach to pollution prevention is the introduction of sand filters in artery ways. Its design allows for the collection and filtration of effluent. Until all the infrastructure for wastewater treatment and collection is laid out, sand filters will act as an intermediate and extended resolve to pollution control. This suggested method is inconspicuous, easily accessible, affordable in construction cost and requires minimal skills to operate, making it a favorable solution. Community involvement in the upkeep and improvement of their surroundings could be promoted through social interventions such as the implementation of community signs, waste collection and education programs. If community members develop a better sense of social responsibility for environmental protection and are advised of the implications of pollution, they may be motivated to take an active role in a pollution awareness campaign. Increasing the presence of waste prohibition signs and trash and recycling bins in the community will discourage inhabitants from littering and incorrectly disposing of their trash on the streets and in the river. Likewise, the implementation of environmental programs in schools and the communities will educate both youth and adults on the importance of environmental preservation, thus providing the population with resources to help the environment and enhance the goals of the Burunga Project.